Missing on Christmas Eve

Young couple captivate nation from start to verdict

November 13, 2004 

It was Christmas Eve 2002, and a cold fog hung in the air above Covena Avenue.

As midnight approached, warm scenes played out in homes throughout Modesto's La Loma neighborhood: Parents tiptoed around, putting out presents in the late-night crush; children slept in their beds, having drifted off wondering what wonderful gifts the morning would bring.

But for a small group of people gathered in front of Scott and Laci Peterson's home, the night couldn't have been any colder. They had walked through nearby Dry Creek Regional Park, some in pairs, others alone, all of them calling for Laci.

And when they had run out of places to look, they stood together in front of the Petersons' home, unsure whether to remain hopeful or fear the worst.

"It just wasn't right," said Rene Tomlinson, one of Laci's close friends. "This was not a sad place. To be sad at her house, it just wasn't right."

The search for Laci Peterson, which was to evolve into arguably the largest effort of its kind in Modesto's history, had begun a few hours earlier that night after Scott Peterson called friends and relatives, asking if anyone had seen his wife. Ron Grantski, longtime companion of Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, called police about 6 p.m. and reported her missing.

During the early days of the case, any time someone voiced suspicion about Scott Peterson, Laci's family and friends defended her husband. But that resolve slowly eroded over the following weeks.

The day after Christmas, police erected a cordon of yellow crime-scene tape around the Petersons' home and began a two-day search there. The next day, investigators searched Scott Peterson's warehouse and made their first trip to the Berkeley Marina to investigate his story that he had been on a fishing trip at the time his wife disappeared.

Peterson, who had retained criminal defense attorney Kirk McAllister of Modesto, attended the first couple of police news conferences with his and Laci's families. But at a news conference several days after Christmas, he left abruptly, apparently upset that reporters were questioning his alibi.

The public began to embrace the story, which had all the elements of a mystery and a tragedy: a young, pregnant woman going missing on Christmas Eve. Hundreds of volunteers posted fliers around town, helping with extensive daily searches for some sign of her. Just four days after Laci was reported missing, the reward fund for her safe return had soared to $500,000.

After a few days of local newspaper and TV coverage, the story began attracting large-scale media attention; Bay Area and national news organizations started giving the case prime-time coverage.

Modesto Police Chief Roy Wasden conducted interviews that first week with "Good Morning America," "Today," and "The Early Show." CNN regularly cut away from scheduled programming to show the Police Department's news conferences live. Internet forums and talk shows brimmed with wild speculation about what had happened to Laci.

More and more, the press and public began to scrutinize Peterson's behavior, with many concluding that he did not appear to resemble a grieving husband.

On Jan. 15, 2003, a close relative of Laci told The Bee that police detectives had disclosed to them that Scott had been having an affair with a Fresno woman later identified as Amber Frey. Police showed family members pictures of Peterson and Frey together at a party, and later everyone would learn Laci attended a holiday party alone that night.

The next day, Laci's friends and family did not open the volunteer search center that had operated out of the Red Lion Hotel as many of them began to conclude that Peterson was responsible for his wife's disappearance. Laci's family members began publicly asking him to take a lie detector test.

As the media glare intensified, Peterson conducted his first interview, telling a TV reporter, "Make me the biggest villain if you want to, as long as it keeps her picture in the press."

Before that, Peterson's only public statement had been a message written in black marker that hung in the volunteer center: "Volunteers: As I see every person come through this door, or out searching, I tell Laci about them, looking for her. Early this morning I felt she could hear me. She thanks you. … Laci's husband."

Amber Frey shows up

On Jan. 24, a month after Laci was reported missing, Frey appeared at an emotional news conference to disclose that she had had a romantic relationship with Peterson, saying he told her he was not married when they met two months earlier.

Earlier that day, the Rochas had held their own news conference. It ended emotionally as Laci's mother approached a mass of microphones wearing the unmistakable signs of heartache and grief.

"I love my daughter so much," Sharon Rocha said. "I miss everything about her. Someone has taken all of this away from me and everyone else who loved her. There are no words that could possibly describe the ache in my heart and the emptiness in my life."

Two days later, Peterson conducted several televised interviews at his home, addressing numerous allegations and rumors surrounding his involvement in his wife's disappearance. More than a dozen TV trucks set up camp near the Peterson home on a day that also saw the release of Scott's videotaped interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America."

During the interview, Peterson denied killing Laci or having anything to do with her disappearance. He described his marriage as "glorious," even though he admitted to being unfaithful. "We took care of each other very well," he said. "She was amazing. She is amazing."

After those interviews, Peterson mostly kept out of sight, spending much of his time with family in San Diego. Laci's due date passed in mid-February. Her sister and some of Laci's friends marked the occasion with a vigil just after sunset at East La Loma Park.

On Feb. 18, detectives returned to the Peterson home and hauled away about 100 items of evidence in their second search of the residence.

Two weeks later, police for the first time said they believed Laci was the victim of a homicide. During the last days of February and March, new information about the case was sparse; the story all but disappeared as people tuned in to coverage of the war in Iraq.

But interest spiked again the morning of April 14 when news agencies reported that a woman walking her dog at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline had found a woman's body in marshy wetlands. The discovery came a day after someone else found a baby boy's body about a mile away in south Richmond, on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

While the state crime lab was trying to determine the identities of the bodies, police began constant surveillance of Peterson in the San Diego area. Modesto investigators obtained a warrant April 17 for his arrest, and state agents arrested him the next day near Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla.

TV coverage skyrockets

Sporting a full goatee and hair that had been dyed a lighter shade, he was driven back to the Stanislaus County Jail in Modesto, where a large crowd waiting outside cheered as he arrived to be booked on two counts of murder. Fox News coverage that day was the most-watched single program on cable, at just more than 5 million viewers.

On April 21, Peterson pleaded not guilty to the charges during his arraignment. That same day, the Rocha family held its first news conference since learning that Laci's body had been found. As her family sobbed behind her, Laci's mother spoke out to her daughter's killer in anger and passion, but stopped short of naming her son-in-law as that person.

"Laci and her unborn child did not deserve to die," Rocha said. "They certainly did not deserve to be dumped in the bay and sent to a watery grave as though their lives were meaningless. I literally get sick to my stomach when I allow myself to think about what may have happened to them. No parent should ever have to think about the way their child was murdered."

On May 2, a week after District Attorney James Brazelton said his office would seek the death penalty for Peterson, defense attorney Mark Geragos officially took over as Peterson's lawyer.

Two days later, an estimated 3,000 people filled First Baptist Church in Modesto for Laci's memorial service, which was held on what would have been her 28th birthday. The next day, Geragos said he not only would prove his client's innocence, but also would find who had killed Laci. Two months later, Geragos would say, in court documents, that evidence "totally exonerates" Peterson and would tip off the true killers if made public.

On May 19, Frey hired attorney Gloria Allred, and Frey also said she was prepared to testify against Peterson at his trial. Three weeks later, Judge Al Girolami issued a gag order to limit public statements by people associated with the case.

In late August, about 250 people attended the private burial of Laci and Conner, who were laid to rest in a single casket at Burwood Cemetery in Escalon after a service at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto.

Public interest in the case reached a crescendo again as the preliminary hearing drew closer, with people eager to replace talk-show speculation with knowledge of evidence police had uncovered but kept under wraps because of the gag order.

The media horde turned a dusty dirt lot at 11th and I streets in downtown Modesto into a bustling enclave of mobile office trailers, satellite trucks and portable generators. Thousands of feet of cable snaked through the dust to a row of 28 media tents set up along 11th Street in front of the courthouse. TV crews from stations as far away as Japan came to Modesto to cover the hearing that, after four delays, finally was set to begin.

The preliminary hearing -- which would last 12 days -- started Oct. 29 with the first of two days of testimony from FBI DNA expert Constance L. Fisher, who said a hair found in pliers in Peterson's fishing boat could not have been his but could have come from Laci.

The hair in the pliers was the first of many revelations that reached the public for the first time. But as the hearing wore on, no smoking gun emerged and it became clear that the case hinged on circumstantial evidence.

The hearing ended with almost as many questions as when it began. Prosecutors didn't answer how, where or why they believed Laci was killed. They didn't show how or when her body found its way to the chilly waters of the bay. The witness who could provide a motive -- Peterson's girlfriend at the time his wife disappeared -- didn't take the stand. Still, prosecutors pummeled Peterson's credibility and raised questions about his alibi.

Prosecutors disclosed that Peterson exchanged 241 cell phone calls with Frey in a 93-day period starting five weeks before his pregnant wife disappeared. The calls included seven on Christmas Day and 16 the next day, after no calls on Christmas Eve -- the day police believe he dumped his wife's body in the bay.

An investigator also testified that Scott had $15,000 cash and a camp stove, water purifier, fishing pole and other gear with him when he was arrested north of San Diego.

Geragos goes to work

Geragos countered by systematically questioning each point brought up by prosecutors, and also raised the prospect that Laci's baby, Conner, was born before he was killed. If he could prove that allegation, it could cast serious doubt on whether Scott had been involved in the disappearance and deaths of his wife and their son.

The preliminary hearing drew more than 100 journalists and crews from all sorts of media -- mainstream and otherwise. Writers from People magazine, the National Enquirer and many more publications attended every session, and talk shows such as Fox's "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" and CNN's "Larry King Live" rarely missed a day of analysis.

The hearing ended with Girolami ordering Peterson to answer to the charges, paving the way for a trial. On Dec. 3, Peterson again pleaded not guilty to murder charges. "That's correct, your honor," Peterson told Girolami. "I am innocent." Girolami scheduled a Jan. 26, 2004, jury trial, but no one expected it to begin that soon.

On Dec. 15, Geragos, citing a "lynch-mob atmosphere" and "poisonous" news coverage in Stanislaus County, filed a motion to have the trial moved. Four days later, Laci's mother filed two lawsuits against Scott, suing him for more than $5 million in the deaths of his wife and their unborn son.

On Jan. 20, 2004, Girolami ordered the trial moved to San Mateo County. The trial was to take place in Redwood City with Judge Alfred Delucchi set to preside. Jury selection began March 4 with 200 prospective jurors filling out 23-page questionnaires that contained 116 questions, ranging from their views on the death penalty to whether they knew anybody in law enforcement to what bumper stickers were on their cars.

On April 1, as jury selection continued, Rocha and Grantski traveled to Washington to be on hand for a ceremony where President Bush signed "Laci and Conner's law," which makes killing a fetus a distinct federal crime. The law's passage marked a poignant triumph for Rocha and Grantski, who lobbied extensively on the bill's behalf.

'A common-sense case'

After two months of legal maneuvering, the list of more than 1,600 people screened as prospective jurors was narrowed to 76 finalists. In late May, the pool was reduced to 12 jurors and six alternates, setting the stage for the trial to begin.

On June 1, prosecutor Rick Distaso gave an opening statement punctuated by grisly photographs of Laci and Conner Peterson's remains, telling jurors that Peterson led a calculated double life before and after the murders of his pregnant wife and unborn son.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a common-sense case," Distaso said, offering a multitude of revelations that included a recording of Peterson calling his lover 10 minutes before the scheduled start of a candlelight vigil for his missing wife. As Distaso spoke, an army of reporters hung on his every word.

The next day, in a two-hour opening argument, Geragos ripped into the prosecution for its lack of evidence. Geragos told jurors his client had an affair, but that he had nothing to do with his wife's murder. Geragos also said forensic evidence would show that Scott and Laci's son was born alive sometime after Christmas Eve 2002.

"The fact of the matter is that this is a murder case and there has to be evidence," Geragos said. "The evidence is going to show clearly, beyond any doubt, that not only was Scott not guilty, but stone-cold innocent."

The case got moving in June, a month loaded with revelations. Rocha testified that her daughter apparently was aware of the first of her husband's two affairs early in her marriage. In a videotaped police interview, Peterson said the couple had no marital problems. In a nationally televised interview that appeared weeks later, Peterson said he told police "immediately" about the affair with Frey.

Juror No. 5, Justin Falconer, was removed from the case after a TV camera captured him talking briefly with Laci's brother. Frey's best friend, Shawn Sibley, testified that Peterson said he was sick of dating "bimbos with no brains" and was seeking a soulmate.

Modesto police Detective Al Brocchini, who damaged Peterson's credibility further and then came under constant fire from Geragos, testified that he omitted from a police report a paragraph damaging to the prosecution theory of the case, but said the information was in an earlier report.

In July, Detective Dodge Hendee testified that a field of concrete residue at Peterson's warehouse contained up to five "voided areas," suggesting that Peterson made five anchors to help sink his wife's body in the bay. One anchor was found in Peterson's boat, but no others were found during exhaustive searches of the bay that turned up items as small as a beer can.

Two hair fragments from pliers in Peterson's boat probably came from different hairs, a prosecution expert testified. That undermined the prosecution argument that a strand of Laci's hair broke in an evidence envelope, while bolstering Geragos' contention that police mishandled evidence. Graphic testimony about the April 2003 discovery of Conner and Laci's remains left some jurors shaken, and drove her family from the courtroom.

Frey tapes calls

In August, Frey testified that Peterson told her he had "lost" his wife weeks before she disappeared and that he wooed Frey with champagne, roses, cooking and attention to her toddler.

Peterson told Frey he was "longing to hold onto" her, but repeatedly denied involvement in his wife's disappearance in hours of calls Frey secretly taped for police. In phone calls to Frey, Peterson pretended to be in Paris watching New Year's fireworks near the Eiffel Tower and drinking in a bar with pals. In reality, he was about to attend a vigil in Modesto for his missing wife.

In September, experts testified that none of Laci's blood or other bodily fluids was found in the couple's home or her husband's truck, warehouse or boat. Conner was not born vaginally or delivered via standard Caesarean section, a pathologist testified, but acknowledged that he could not rule out live birth.

Prosecutors hinted that Peterson might have suffocated his wife with a pillow while she got undressed the night of Dec. 23, 2002. But police didn't seize most of the couple's bed linens until almost two months later, a detective said.

Prosecutor provides drama

As the five-month trial wound down in October, Charles March, a defense obstetrician, melted down on the stand, asking a prosecutor to "cut me slack" when cross-examined about his finding that Conner had been born at least five days after his mother was reported missing.

On Oct. 26, after putting together a presentation that stretched over six days, Peterson's defense team abruptly rested its case without calling two scheduled witnesses, surprising legal observers who had expected a more dramatic finish.

Five days later, it was Distaso who provided the drama in a passionate closing argument in which he blasted Peterson as a calculating killer who murdered his pregnant wife to further a fantasy life of money, travel and women. Distaso -- criticized early on by pundits for a rambling, disjointed presentation -- wrapped five months of testimony from 184 witnesses into an articulate and spirited denunciation of Peterson.

The next day, Geragos began his closing argument by walking up to his client and asking jurors, "Do you all hate him?" Geragos said Distaso's argument amounted to 12 minutes of authorities' theories followed by four hours of "this guy's the biggest jerk that ever walked the face of the Earth … and you should hate him, hate him, hate him. …

"Nobody's going to nominate Scott Peterson as husband of the year," Geragos acknowledged. "But the fact of the matter is, (authorities) have not proved that Scott Peterson did anything except lie."

The case was handed over to the jury on the afternoon of Nov. 3. Deliberations continued for a week before signs of trouble emerged.

Frances Gorman, juror No. 7, was replaced Nov. 9, amid signs of misconduct. On Nov. 10, Gregory Charles Jackson, the jury foreman, was dismissed.

With no deliberations on Veterans Day, the jury came back with a verdict Nov. 12.

Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder in his wife's death and second-degree murder in the death of their unborn son.

The penalty phase is to begin Nov. 22. Jurors will decide whether Peterson receives the death penalty.

Bee staff writer Ty Phillips can be reached at 578-2331 or tphillips@modbee.com.

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